Trouble Brewing within a Conservative Citadel
Sad to say, but American higher education is littered with once-venerable Christian colleges and universities that have succumbed to the spirit of the age. Recent examples include Azusa Pacific University, Calvin University, and Wheaton College: in different ways each has fallen prey to aspects of critical race theory (CRT), as well as gender and queer theory, CRT’s fellow travelers.
If any school were immune to this trend, one would think it would be Grove City College (GCC), an institution not only grounded in Biblical orthodoxy and the conservative intellectual tradition but also with a history of vigorously defending its mission and identity. And yet, the smoke coming out of GCC compels us to ask if a fire has been kindled within the citadel, and just who exactly is manning the walls.
In the 1980s, GCC famously stood up to overreach by the federal government, taking its case all the way to the US Supreme Court in Grove City College v. Bell. On principle, GCC has foregone all federal financial support, a move that preserves its institutional independence to a much greater degree than its peers. GCC’s campus viewbook highlights the distinctives of a GCC education: a traditional humanities core curriculum that students engage within a residential liberal arts program, chapel programming that facilitates spiritual formation through the preaching of the gospel, and soaring gothic architecture that points to the enduring legacy of beauty, truth, and goodness. The college is home to the Institute for Faith & Freedom, which among other things hosts the annual Ronald Reagan Lecture, and whose homepage proudly declares, “America is exceptional because its foundation rests on the principles of faith, freedom, and truth.” GCC’s alumni magazine recently highlighted the impressive number of graduates who have dedicated their careers to advancing the “[f]undamental ideas of American freedom: individual liberty, free markets, and the rule of law.”
So far, so good: GCC presents itself as an intellectual citadel, unapologetically Christian, conservative and counter-cultural, willing to defend itself against external coercion and able to do so because of its independence. We might expect, then, that GCC would recoil at the pseudo-religious character of wokeism and resist the cultural Marxism at the heart of CRT, instead providing bold thought leadership in the articulation of a distinctly Christian and classical conception of justice. But if this is our expectation, mounting evidence suggests we may be wrong.
On November 10, 2021, concerned GCC parents and alumni initiated a “Save GCC from CRT” petition. Six days later, the petition closed after receiving 481 signatures from parents, alumni, former faculty, and current students. The specific allegations of the petition can be roughly distilled to the following:
- That a couple of recent chapel speakers, including, crucially, GCC’s Chaplain Dr. Donald Opitz, had promulgated CRT from the chapel pulpit, in a setting and venue that bears GCC’s imprimatur (GCC students are required to attend a certain number of chapel events every semester). [Note: Following the petition response from GCC’s President Paul McNulty, GCC removed Opitz’s chapel speech dated 10.12.21 entitled “Mercy,” which was referenced in the petition.]
- That GCC’s training for resident assistants (RAs) included a segment by Justin Jose, a member of GCC’s newly-established Diversity Council and the Director of the Office of Multicultural Education and Initiatives, in which Mr. Jose instructed RAs on the concepts of inner racism, white privilege and white guilt.
- That Mr. Jose had been observed wearing an LGBT rainbow mask. [Note: McNulty’s response to the petition states that “the facemask in question is not a rainbow flag.”]
- That an education class (EDUC 290) required students to read Ibram X. Kendi’s book How to Be an Anti-Racist.
- That GCC’s Diversity Council sponsored a number of reading groups – advertised across campus – that favorably featured books pushing elements of CRT (e.g., Reading While Black). [Note: McNulty’s response to the petition labels this characterization of the diversity council’s activities as “misinformed.”]
- That the education department requested applicants to provide preferred pronouns. [Note: GCC has since responded that this incident is under ongoing review.]
- That GCC’s Academic Resource Center (ARC) requested applicants to provide preferred pronouns. [Note: GCC has since addressed this issue and attributed the request for preferred pronouns to a third-party service provider’s default settings.]
President McNulty issued a limp response to the CRT petition on Friday, November 19. The response reads as a defensive approach that should give little comfort to the concerned stakeholders who expect to hear bold thought leadership from the president of this putative bastion of intellectual conservatism, rather than the corporate-style PR they are being served.
First, the response led with misleading characterizations of the petition process and pointed criticism of those who organized the petition. The totality of McNulty’s response creates the impression that the petition blindsided McNulty – i.e., that he had not received any communications regarding the matter prior to the petition being circulated:
I was hoping I would receive the petition currently circulating before providing this extensive response. I am responding before receiving the online petition because it has become clear that misinformed assertions included in the petition are unfairly threatening the reputation of Grove City College…
To the contrary, we understand that the organizers of the petition unsuccessfully attempted to resolve these issues directly with McNulty for weeks prior to going public with a petition. So when McNulty asks rhetorically “is there not a biblical standard for addressing concerns within the Christian community that runs counter to petitions and the potential for the widespread bearing of false witness against another,” McNulty knows that the petition organizers made serious efforts to handle the petition in just such a manner and only went public as a last resort. Matters may well be worse. We have received copies of communications between board members and concerned parents that raise the question of whether McNulty has been fully transparent with his board regarding the extent of the petitioners’ effort to raise their concerns with him.
McNulty also opined that the petition facilitated the “communication of misrepresentations, partial reports, hearsay, rumors, and other unreliable information” that formed the basis of “a petition that coalesces into attack.” However, the petitioners, generally alumni and concerned parents, based their petition either on publicly available information or reports from direct eyewitness (i.e., not hearsay).
Second, McNulty’s response obfuscates by attempting to cast all the concerns over CRT as objections to GCC’s attempts at working through social justice issues. As he argues: “there is an important difference between engagement on social justice issues and critical theory, a politically charged approach to the criticism of society that has no intellectual home at Grove City College.” Even for those willing to grant a distinction between CRT and social justice, McNulty does not offer any substantive account of how he, or GCC, defines CRT or social justice, which is surely a necessary basis for coherent institutional action. Furthermore, McNulty persists in referring to what he seems to think of as CRT as “critical theory” throughout his response. While CRT is certainly grounded in critical theory more broadly, the two are not synonymous, and the “R” in CRT, which stands for race, is precisely the object of petitioners’ concerns. This inability or refusal to pay careful attention to terms and their definitions belies a larger failure to unmask CRT or to engage the specific nature of the petitioners’ claims fully.
Third, McNulty accuses the petitioners of perpetuating “cancel culture.” The comparison is inapt. When conservatives lament “cancel culture,” they typically have in mind the cancellation of a person’s bank account, payment processing platform, server space, insurance policies, ability to fly, etc., or perhaps even a person’s livelihood, in cases where the cancelable speech is unrelated to the person’s job performance. It is another thing altogether to say that parents – who entrust their children and pay a private school tuition premium in the hopes that they will experience a distinctively Christian, conservative education and character formation – are engaged in cancel culture when they express concerns about the content of that education. A college president, of all people, should understand that mere disagreement with a decision or action is not equivalent to “cancellation.”
Fourth, McNulty’s response suggests that he either lacks a robust understanding of how both curriculum and co-curriculum (i.e., chapel, student life programming) communicate institutional values or he assumes that the petitioners will not make basic distinctions between education and indoctrination. McNulty implores:
[P]lease consider Grove City College’s academic mission. As an institution of higher learning committed to excellence, we examine a broad range of ideas through the lens of biblical truth. All truth is God’s truth, and we delight in learning and endeavor to be unafraid as we equip students to be salt and light in the world.
What parents expect (and what GCC markets to potential students and parents) is that when students attend GCC they will robustly engage in the marketplace of ideas in the classroom armed with analytical tools from the Christian tradition, and that outside of the classroom, GCC will provide full-orbed and distinctively Christian character formation. In other words, there’s a difference between critically reading CRT as part of intellectual training in the classroom and hearing CRT from the chapel’s pulpit or student life staff.
Fifth and most fatally, McNulty fails to answer substantively a number of specific issues raised by the petitioners.
To take one example, McNulty fails to respond whatsoever to the allegations relating to the presence of CRT in RA training, which ultimately impacts every student who lives on campus. This glaring omission raises the question, how exactly has GCC been training its RAs? Is GCC not willing to make public (and defend) the materials used in such trainings? Who is making the decisions about what is or is not included, and why?
To take another example, McNulty concludes that CRT was not promulgated in chapel because, apparently, the phrase “CRT” was not expressly mentioned by any of the speakers. This is like saying that the Communist Manifesto didn’t promulgate Marxism because it didn’t mention the word “Marxism.”
This reductionist assertion can be refuted by a short walk through Jemar Tisby’s GCC chapel speech on October 20, 2020, in which he preached from the book of Esther about the “Urgency of Now.” Applying the urgency of Mordecai’s plea to Esther to the protests for social justice from the summer of 2020, Tisby argued, inter alia, speaking of the protests: “In case you weren’t sure, this is the civil rights movement of our time. It’s happening right now. How you are responding in moments like this is exactly how you would have responded in the 1950s and 60s.” And again: “We are living in the modern-day civil rights movement. Freedom, justice, democracy, especially for black people and other people of color, are in eminent danger, just as the Jews faced danger.” And again (speaking of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s words for white moderates from the Letter from Birmingham Jail): “And even today, King’s words can be applied to so many, can they not? People who in the face of video evidence and testimony and history books still refuse to get involved in the struggle.” In sum, Tisby argues for a straight line parallel between the Jews in the book of Esther (opposing a statute that was discriminatory on its face – i.e., all Jews will be killed) and the struggles of the civil rights movement (opposing statutes that were discriminatory on their face – i.e., all Blacks cannot vote), on the one hand, and the disparate impacts at the center of the 2020 protest movements on the other hand, and then concludes therefore that failing to support the 2020 protest movements is morally equivalent to failing to support the civil rights movement or the Jews in the book of Esther.
This style of argument is, of course, classic CRT. Anyone who has spent any time in the CRT literature knows it is distinguished by pervasive, often undefended elisions of formal discrimination under the law with disparate impact discrimination (i.e., the conclusion that discrimination exists because a disparate outcome can be demonstrated, disregarding any independent variable that could explain such disparate outcome). The often tendentious assumption that racism is proved by the existence of a disparate impact is then typically followed with a call to action with messaging (implied or express) that one who dissents or fails to engage in activist solutions against such disparity is a racist. So, while it is true that Tisby did not expressly mention CRT by name, he argues in a manner that can only be coherent to a person who has already adopted one of CRT’s core and distinctive premises. Hence, when McNulty asserts that CRT is not being taught in chapel because CRT hasn’t been expressly referenced, McNulty’s judgment is questionable. Tisby’s thought is firmly grounded in CRT, a reality surely appreciated by Ibram X. Kendi when he hired Tisby to serve as Assistant Director of Narrative and Advocacy at the Center for Antiracist Research just five short months after Tisby delivered his chapel address at GCC. The timing of this hire also casts doubt on McNulty’s protestation that “Mr. Tisby’s views appear to have shifted on CRT following his presentation.” Perhaps instead GCC’s initial evaluation of his views was not sufficiently discerning.
McNulty skates on thinner ice when he defends GCC’s Advisory Council on Diversity. Here, McNulty asserts, “the Council was formed in the summer of 2020… It is not operational in any sense, and every reference to the Council acting in some manner, such as organizing book clubs, is misinformed.” This description seems inconsistent, to say the least, with how GCC described the Council in a press release following its formation:
Grove City College President Paul J. McNulty ’80 has announced the establishment of the President’s Advisory Council on Diversity to further the College’s efforts in the promotion of a diverse learning community.
The council will help guide recommendations in the development of strategic initiatives for the recruitment and retention of students, the hiring of new employees and broadening perspectives among all members of the community. It includes faculty, staff, students and alumni who bring relevant experiences to the council’s work as the College addresses opportunities for enriching the campus culture and better preparing students for their personal and professional callings. (Emphasis added)
In coverage following the Council’s creation, the Grove City Collegian’s reporting thickens the picture, quoting council members advocating for the creation of venues on campus for minority students to be able to talk about their experiences. In the same article, the Collegian described a campus forum, hosted by GCC’s Office of Multicultural Education & Initiatives, “where students could freely share their experiences about the racial justice protest movement.” Professor and Diversity Council member Cedric Lewis (also a co-teacher of the EDUC 290 class, described in more detail below) spoke at this event, reportedly admonishing students in attendance: “Don’t be afraid to tell your truth.”
Much more could be written about McNulty’s response, but its approach and tenor are notable. To wit, the decision to issue a full-throated defense of questionable institutional actions in response to concerned parents who have made repeated efforts to resolve the matter quietly stands in stark contrast to McNulty’s silence in the face of last summer’s BLM petition, combined with his eventual creation of the Advisory Council on Diversity and its subsequent activities. While the foregoing may not prove that GCC has fallen to CRT, it does betray a lack of respect for GCC’s core constituency and casts doubt on whether GCC’s leadership can continue to provide bold and compelling conservative Christian direction at a moment when other institutions are falling to—and sometimes running toward—the social justice warriors.
Additional digging beyond the scope of the CRT petition reveals that CRT may well be far more pervasive at GCC than appears even from the face of the petition and McNulty’s response. The story appears to begin in June of 2020 when, in the midst of nationwide riots, a group of BLM activists and disaffected GCC alums launched a petition campaign against Paul Kengor, Senior Director and Chief Academic Fellow at GCC’s Institute for Faith and Freedom, subsequently directing a number of demands at the President and the Board, including the creation of a diversity office and anti-bias training programs. In contrast to its CRT petition response, GCC issued no formal repsonse to the critiques of Paul Kengor. GCC did, however, accede to one of the activists’ key demands when McNulty created the Council on Diversity.
Shortly thereafter, the thematic content of GCC’s chapel programming shifted drastically and a raft of racially charged talks took place in Harbison Chapel, each of which took the fact of ongoing systemic racism as assured. The shift in tenor was intentional and announced to the entire campus. In an email from Collin Messer (Professor of English, Assistant Dean and Co-Chair of the Ethics and Character Formation Working Group), Justin Jose (Director of Multicultural Education and Initiatives) and Don Opitz (Chaplain and Senior Director of Christian Formation) dated October 9, 2020, the trio heralded a two-week intensive program on “Justice, Race and Reconciliation.” The following excerpt from the email previews the items included in the lineup:
Jemar Tisby’s talk, of which much has already been made, was just one of a slew of presentations that adopted a very particular, activist-inflected view of racial justice issues. For example, in his talk on October 13, 2020, Christopher Merrick concluded by offering the following divergent applications to his Black and White audience members:
White people, look in the mirror, ask yourself if you are in these positions where if you feel if you were being marginalized and oppressed, how would you want to be treated? Pursue some of this justice with your black brothers and sisters, it would go a long way, it truly would … until you are just as outraged and broken by these things, we won’t see things change…
Black people – I see one in the room – don’t forget who Jesus is … continue to give grace.
In the panel on October 15, 2020 featuring three GCC minority students, Collin Messer’s facilitation of the panel prompted students to share instances where they’d experienced examples of bias or cultural misunderstanding (i.e., experiences commonly known as micro-aggressions). Messer then set up a prompt for students to offer critiques of the ideal of a color-blind society as well as Martin Luther King Jr.’s formulation of a just society being one where a person is judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin.
Now, it is true that one swallow does not a summer make. Viewed in isolation, the talks by one or two of the speakers involved in the two-week program on Justice, Race and Reconciliation are nothing rare in Christian higher education. But as part of the overall program, GCC chose not to include any voice that would dissent from the consensus view (among the speakers) that America exhibits, today, systemic racism and that it is every Christian’s duty to actively oppose such systemic racism. There are, of course, numerous thoughtful thinkers (many of whom are themselves African American) who can articulate a conception of justice that far better aligns with the classical tradition and historical Christian understandings – Carol Swain, Thomas Sowell, Neil Shenvi, Vodie Bauchum, and Monique Duson, to name a few. Many of GCC’s own faculty would have been well suited to deliver compelling alternatives to the CRT-driven narrative. In utterly failing to platform any compelling alternative to the dominant narratives arising from the 2020 summer of rage, GCC failed its students and abdicated what should have been its rightful position of thought leadership for the conservative Christian right.
Similarly, the facts around the EDUC 290 course paint a picture of CRT being far more endemic than even the CRT petitioners knew. The petitioners had raised concerns over the inclusion of Ibram X. Kendi’s book How to Be an Antiracist. However, we have learned that the course also required students to read Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility, Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me and David W. Swanson’s Rediscipling the White Church. Far from a course featuring multiple perspectives on racial reconciliation and related issues, EDUC 290 appears to have exclusively pushed CRT activism. More tellingly, the EDUC 290 course could not have sprung up on its own. We understand that its creation would have required the approval of the Chair of the Education Department, the Dean of the Calderwood School of Arts and Letters, and GCC’s chief academic officer (the Provost). EDUC 290: Cultural Diversity and Advocacy is slated to be offered again next semester; posters approved by GCC’s Office of Student Life & Learning have been displayed across campus and feature the Black power symbol of the clenched fist as well as a promise to instruct students in “how to become actively anti-racist.”
At this stage, we have far more questions than answers as to what is going on at GCC. But current facts strongly suggest that, contrary to McNulty’s assessment, CRT has gained both an intellectual and spiritual foothold at one of America’s most staunchly conservative Christian colleges, and it has done so not only in the formal academic program but also in the co-curricular offerings of the college’s student life and chapel programming. Instead of advancing a consistent, conservative and theologically robust alternative to the dominant, but highly flawed, account of race and personhood that is pervasive throughout contemporary academia, it seems that GCC’s leadership is willing to give quarter to the claims of CRT. In this moment of social, religious, and political crisis, GCC appears content to draft upon its legacy as a conservative champion even while opening itself up to ideologies that will ultimately alienate GCC from both its past and its most supportive constituencies.
The situation at GCC is still developing. We will continue to monitor events with interest and are happy to receive any additional context or information that anyone with direct knowledge may have. If you would like to contact us in this regard, we can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. In the meantime, we hope GCC’s leadership will expend more energy dousing the rising flames and less decrying the volume of the fire alarm.
*Image Credit: Wunderstock
Josh Abbotoy is a Managing Director at New Founding, a network designed to serve the American people. A seasoned private equity lawyer by background, Josh is a grateful beneficiary of Christian education, having been homeschooled and earning his B.A. from Union University before earning his J.D. from Harvard Law School. He lives in Sugar Land, Texas with his wife and three children and is a member of University Park Baptist Church.